Negotiating the “Comfort Women” Issue in the 21st Century

Diplomatic tensions between Japan and South Korea are increasing as South Korea is pushing the decades-old “comfort women” issue back into the political spotlight. On November 21, the South Korean government officially announced that it would shut down the Reconciliation and Healing Foundation, a cornerstone of a 2015 agreement between Japan and South Korea aimed at a “final and irreversible” resolution to the issue. Japan was quick to criticize South Korea for breaking a pledge in such a public and “irresponsible” manner, asking South Korea to retract its decision. Stuck in the deadlock of an emotive issue, Japan and South Korea have reached a new low point in their bilateral relationship.

A Thorny Issue

The term “comfort women” is a euphemism for young women from Japanese-occupied areas in Asia forced to work in military brothels during World War II. Although most international sources quote a number of 200,000 women affected, the lack of proper documentation has made determining a total number almost impossible.

The Japanese government insists that all legal issues from its colonial rule have been settled through the 1965 diplomatic treaty when it provided South Korea with a lump-sum compensation of $800 million. Seeking to further promote goodwill with South Korea in 1993, the Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono recognized and apologized for Japan’s involvement in military sexual slavery. This was followed by the establishment of the privately run and donations-based Asian Women’s Fund in 1995, which provided compensation for surviving victims across Asia.

Despite the Abe Cabinet’s upholding of the 1993 Kono Statement, the government of Japan insists on its non-involvement in authorizing systematic sexual slavery. It states that there is no evidence of government participation and that private-sector brokers rounded up women against their will, despite the comfort stations being set up at the instruction of the Japanese Imperial Army. However, many South Koreans argue that the Japanese government should be held accountable for the plight of the victims and accuse it of being unable to come to terms with its own war record.

The 2015 Agreement Unravels

The most recent attempt to resolve the issue came in December 28, 2015, when six months of closed-door diplomacy between Tokyo and Seoul resulted in an agreement between Prime Minister Abe and former South Korean President Park Geun-hye, coinciding with the fiftieth anniversary of diplomatic ties.

The Japanese government pledged one billion yen ($8.8 million) for the establishment of a Reconciliation and Healing Foundation to care for the surviving victims as part of its apology. Rather than fully acknowledging its legal responsibility, an apology was provided by former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida when the deal was announced in a meeting with his counterpart Yun Byung-se, and in a phone call the same day, Abe repeated the apology to Park.

A source of friction, the South Korean government pledged for its part to remove a comfort woman statue in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul while also pledging to drop its demand for reparations and ending criticism of Japan on the “comfort women” issue. Current Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono stated that the agreement between the two governments had been “highly appreciated by international society.”

Unfortunately for the champions of the 2015 agreement, this top-down imposed resolution proved to be one of the most unpopular Blue House decisions. The main reason was that the process excluded the voices of the victims and their families, being treated instead as part of a strategic deal struck between the countries.

In contrast to the 83 percent of the Japanese population that reject further demands from South Korea over the “comfort women” issue, a poll from 2017 indicated that 70 percent of South Koreans find that the issue has not been resolved, remaining critical of the agreement due to its failure to take into account the feelings and opinions of the victims.

For over two decades, South Koreans, including remaining “comfort women” victims and their families, have gathered in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul every Wednesday, urging the Japanese government to issue a “heartfelt” apology to the victims. Adding to the diplomatic dispute, activists installed a bronze statue symbolizing a comfort woman adjacent to the Japanese Consulate in Busan on the first anniversary of the agreement in 2016.

A Victim-Centered Approach

The change in South Korean administrations, from Park to Moon, after the 2017 presidential election shifted the policy direction of the “comfort women” issue – from secret negotiating processes between governments to an inclusive one that involves society.

With less than 26 registered, former “comfort women” alive, the current South Korean government is demanding Japan to implement a more victim-centered approach – empowering survivors as engaged participants in the process.

In the past year, the Moon Jae-in administration has displayed a number of significant steps to accommodate domestic appeals. In December 2017, a government-appointed panel provided their review of the Abe-Park agreement and concluded that the deal failed to take a victim-oriented approach, a universal standard in resolving human rights issues as stated by South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha. This was bolstered in August 2018, when the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination recommended that Japan take a victim-oriented approach. As a result of the review, most of the members of the Reconciliation and Healing Foundation resigned, rendering it dysfunctional.

Despite pressure from the U.S., keen to put the issue aside and improve security cooperation between its key allies in East Asia and Abe’s request for Moon to “faithfully abide” by the 2015 agreement, President Moon made it clear that South Korea would not be bound by the terms. Much to Tokyo’s dismay, the South Korean government announced the building of a “comfort women” museum in Seoul and has designated August 14 as Memorial Day for “comfort women.”

For its part, the Japanese government insists on the legal finality of the 1965 treaty and rejects legal responsibility for the comfort system. Furthermore, the government has displayed a case of “apology fatigue” and frustration with South Korea’s responses to Japanese efforts of reconciliation, stating that future generations should not be predestined to apologize.


On December 14, Moon and a group of Japanese lawmakers failed to mend the current rift. While Moon has maintained that past issues from Japan’s colonial rule should not undermine their optimistic “future-oriented” relationship, the reality is that the legacy of the “comfort women” and the history of Japan’s colonial rule has been and will continue to be a major obstacle in improving bilateral relations and reconciliation efforts between the two countries. In contrast to his conservative predecessors,  Moon appears to have the goal of accommodating to domestic appeals and sentiment. The failure of the 2015 agreement highlights the requisite for a long-term solution with a victim-oriented policy approach to the “comfort women” issue in the 21st century. With a decreasing number of living victims who had experienced the harsh reality of the comfort system during World War II, there is an urgent need for the two governments to establish and offer a platform for the voices of marginalized survivors in their long search for justice before it is too late – and without unnecessary further politicization of the issue.